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Two Rooms And A View: 6 - A Strange Place Like London

...As soon as the family had finished their evening meal and with little consultation, she announced, "If I am to have another bairn at my age, it will not be born in a strange place like London where we know nobody, but amongst family and friends where we used to live - in West Harton, in South Shields!"...

Robert Owen, continuing his life story, tells how, during the 1930s Depression years, members of his family moved to the London area. However, when Mary found out that she was pregnant at the age of 41, they decided to return to Tyneside.

To read earlier chapters of Robert's story please click on Two Rooms And A view in the menu on this page.

It all started when Mary Owen, Jimmy's mother complained of a terrible headache. She had had many headaches in her time, but two aspirins usually cleared them. Not this time. The following day she was so ill that the doctor was called. He could do little and on 3rd March 1932 Mary died of a brain haemorrhage. William, her husband was shattered. Dr James McHaffie, who had a surgery in Ashley Road signed the death certificate and son John informed the local register office.

William Owen was 75 years of age and not a well man before his wife's untimely death. He attended her funeral and then only eight days later, passed away himself.

Family, friends and neighbours in Alnwick Road were shocked. No post mortem was held and while Dr McHaffie wrote, 'Senile cardiac ischaemia' on the death certificate, everybody knew he simply had lost the will to live after his wife's death. They had been married nearly 56 years.

Mary's death appeared in the Shields Gazette on 4th March. It incorrectly indicated that her maiden name was Connelly, not Connell. Although this was corrected the following night, I believe it also motivated the Connell family to insert their own copy of her death. This also appeared on 5th March proudly adding that Mary," was the only daughter of Captain Connell of Tyne Dock" Readers will recall that he lost his life at sea in 1882, but he was obviously still remembered fifty years later.

A few months later, just when Jimmy and Mabel Owen were recovering from his parents' deaths, their troubles suddenly got a great deal worse. Jimmy lost his job at Harton Colliery in unpleasant circumstances. He had worked there nearly thirty years, starting as a Token-man and progressing to a Time-keeper. Like most miners, Jimmy Owen smoked, enjoyed a drink at Winskells the local pub, supported the Union and the Labour Party and was popular with his workmates. Perhaps that popularity and a job that could influence the wages of his hard up colleagues, led to his downfall?

The Dictionary of Mining describes a Time-keeper as 'A clerk who records all details of the time, place, nature of work and rates of payment, of surface and underground workmen.' In this position, Jimmy Owen undoubtedly had the power to influence the wages of his workmates. Research indicates that this is very likely what happened. Someone then 'shopped him' to the management: he was suspended and then, advised by the Union, he left of his own accord.

Whatever the reason, the loss of his job during a serious economic recession had a terrible effect on the Owen household. A furious row took place because it meant the family had to move out of their colliery house in Gerald Street and also lost its concessionary cheap coal. Mabel was enraged. When the family had quietened down, future possibilities were considered. One was to move house within the town and for Jimmy to try to find work whilst living on the pittance of the dole. Alternatively, the family could move away and Jimmy could attempt to find a job and a house in another area. After much discussion and influenced by the success of Mabel's brother, Jack and family moving and finding a house and work in the London area, it was finally decided that the Owen family would follow them south.

In an unusual sort of way, it must have been an exciting time. The family had travelled very little and this was going to be a new experience to live in London. Also, daughters Jenny and Addie were now old enough to find a job and help with the family's living expenses. Even better, Mabel's brother agreed that everybody could stay with them until Jimmy found a job and some suitable living accommodation. So after putting their furniture into storage, 1930's'style (giving it to family and friends for safe keeping until required again), the family left Shields and moved to London in the autumn of 1933.

The Greater London area was not affected so much by the economic recession and it was reasonably easy for Jimmy to find a house for his family and work for himself and daughters. They lived comfortably in Edgeware for about nine months before another major crisis occurred. Mabel became ill and was forced to make one of her very rare visits to the local doctor.

"I confirm that you are pregnant Mrs Owen." That was a strange London doctor addressing Mabel in the late summer of 1934. People didn't go to the doctors unless it was unavoidable in those days. This was unavoidable! She had visited the surgery half expecting what the doctor was going to say, but at the same time, hoping it wasn't true.

At forty-one years of age and with two grown-up daughters, it was unwelcome news. If that was all, she could cope, but it was not all. She was living 300 miles away from family and friends, which in her mind were vital for support at a time of childbirth. Also, although the family had a house and her husband and daughters had found work, she was not happy in the strange environment of North London. The country was in the middle of a massive economic depression, her husband had recently lost his job as a miner in County Durham and after much deliberation, the family had moved to London in the hope of better times and they had found better times. Her husband, Jimmy and daughters Jennie and Addie had found work and the family was off to a good start in the strange environment of North London.

On the way home from the doctor's, she thought of all the consequences of the coming unexpected event. Having a child at her age was a shock and dangerous in itself, but coming from a close extended northern family, the thought of having to go through what she knew she would have to go through, in a strange place, surrounded by people she didn't know, was impossible. Her 'Geordie heritage' was calling and her mind was soon made up.

As soon as the family had finished their evening meal and with little consultation, she announced, "If I am to have another bairn at my age, it will not be born in a strange place like London where we know nobody, but amongst family and friends where we used to live - in West Harton, in South Shields!"

Jimmy was not pleased. It is often said that 'Geordies' are very parochial and slow to leave home and quick to return. This was ably demonstrated by Mabel's strong personal decision over-ruling the family's economic reasoning. A compromise of Jimmy staying in the capital and sending weekly housekeeping money north was suggested but never happened.

After the family had reluctantly agreed to return to the northeast, Mabel wrote to her longtime friend Nurse Clark, who by now was a small time property owner in the Boldon Lane area of Shields. She informed her of the family's forthcoming return and asked if she could help them to find somewhere to live. Nurse Clark obliged by finding a small flat in Tyne Terrace next to All Saint's Church. She also promised the family the first refusal when any of her own property became available. Soon the Owen family was heading back up the Al to South Shields - but was this a major decision that they would live to regret?


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